TORONTO — As the music blared, and the dancers whirled, and the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, and the pyrotechnics prepared to explode, and the nervous anticipation grew higher, climbing and climbing with each feverish moment before his name was to be announced over the PA system of a real honest-to-goodness NBA arena for the first time in his life, Pascal Siakam scanned anxiously through the crowd.
He was looking for Christian. That’s Pascal’s brother—one of three older than him who all played in the NCAA. While that trio of Siakam’s combined for 17 seasons of college ball—Pascal made it a cool 20 with his three years at New Mexico State—none of them reached the NBA. Not until young Pascal, who was selected by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of June’s draft, quickly earned his coaching staff’s trust, and was told shortly before tip-off Wednesday night that he’d be starting his team’s season opener at power forward.
Pascal knew Christian was there, somewhere. He just couldn’t pick him out of the Air Canada Centre crowd.
“I had no idea where he was,” Siakam says. “I was looking all over the place, trying to make eye contact with him. But, I don’t know, I couldn’t find him.”
It would have been nice if he did. Siakam wasn’t looking for much. Just a moment. Just a chance to lock eyes and acknowledge what he and Christian were both thinking about.
Tchamo Siakam, the father of the boys, had always dreamed of seeing one of his children play in the NBA. He was the mayor of Makenene, a small town in Cameroon, where Siakam is from. Tchamo also worked for a transit company and saved enough money to send each of his boys to the U.S. to play the game. That’s where Pascal was on the day in October, 2014, when Tchamo was killed in a car accident.
Wednesday night, Pascal took the court in front of 19,800 people in Toronto, none more important to him than his brother, and got to make Tchamo’s dream come true.
“The way things have been happening for me has been crazy. I can’t explain it. With my dad passing away and everything that happened…” Siakam says, trailing off. “I’m just happy that I was able to make this happen for my family. I was just out there on the court representing for my family—for my dad.
“I always tell my brothers, I feel like the chosen one, you know? It was an awesome feeling.”
And it was quite a performance. In his first game as a professional, playing against men who were bigger than him, stronger than him, and had far more experience than him, Siakam played more than 20 minutes, pulling down nine rebounds, scoring both field goals he attempted, and, most importantly, not looking out of place at all.
“I thought he did a good job of meeting their physicality. That was my major concern with Siakam, was just the physicality of the game,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey says. “I told him before the game—just play hard, son. Play hard and run the floor. And that’s what he did.”
You can see why Casey likes Siakam so much. And why Raptors fans will be quick to fall in love with him, as well. The 22-year-old is exhausting just to watch, as he sprints from one end of the floor to another, often the first Raptor to cross half court on both offence and defence. He moves his feet constantly when he’s guarding, darting left and right, forward and back, his head constantly turning, scanning, trying to anticipate what the opposition is attempting to do.
He says Wednesday was a nervous day for him. How could it not be? But, interestingly enough, he also says that hyperactive style of play can have a calming effect.
“I don’t know. I felt it a little bit in the beginning, but, with the way I play, it’s hard to get nervous,” Siakam says. “Because I’m all over the place. So, I didn’t feel the nerves as much. But it was there in the beginning. You definitely get that feeling, you know?”
The Pistons certainly felt they knew. Detroit went after Siakam immediately and caught the rookie still working through his opening night butterflies early on. Marcus Morris hit a three-pointer over Siakam less than a minute into the game. Moments later, Morris took the ball beyond the arch again but this time drove, forcing Siakam into an awkward backpedal before Morris dropped a tall hook over him. Siakam’s jog up the court at the end of that sequence was probably his slowest of the night.
“In that first minute or so, I didn’t play as hard as I wanted to play. I think I was still getting warm,” Siakam says. “And I can’t do that. I have to start from the jump. But I found it pretty quickly. I was like, ‘you can’t go out there and your man is scoring on you twice in a row. This can’t happen.’ It kind of woke me up as a competitor. Because I knew they were coming at me. So, I was just like, ‘okay, let’s go.’”
From there, Siakam went to work. He grabbed Toronto’s next rebound and wound up with a team-high four by the end of the quarter, including one he leapt up and over centre Jonas Valanciunas to corral, in an instance where Siakam was perhaps too busy.
With a little less than four minutes left in that opening quarter, Siakam’s restless defence earned him a steal off Pistons forward Tobias Harris, who wasn’t sure what to make of Siakam’s energy and left a lazy pass within his range.
Moments later, Siakam took a Kyle Lowry pass in the post and backed up on Pistons forward Jon Leuer, who has five years in the league. Siakam pivoted, taking three quick steps to his right and launching a hook over Leuer that dropped in for his first two NBA points.
Everyone had always told him that you miss your first NBA shot. It’s just how it goes. But Siakam’s teammates have also been telling him something else.
“The guys always tell me, if you have an opportunity to score, just score,” Siakam says. “So, I didn’t hesitate. I felt I had an opportunity. And I feel like I have a pretty good post-up game. I think I have some moves in the post. So, whenever I get the opportunity, I want to show that.”
After checking out late in the first quarter, Siakam returned in the second and continued piling up rebounds. He finished the half with a game-high seven, including one at the end of a madcap sequence in which the Raptors missed and rebounded three consecutive shots—including one that fell into the lap of Corey Joseph who was sitting beneath the net—until Siakam grabbed the ball and banked it in as Pistons centre Andre Drummond looked on. The Raptors bench exploded as Siakam ran back down the court yelling in the air.
“When someone shoots the ball I get excited because it’s an opportunity for me to score or for me to get a rebound,” Siakam says. “So, that was a good play because we took so many shots. I just got into the right place at the right time.”
About 30 minutes after his first NBA game, Siakam pulled his phone out of his front pocket and scrolled through the long register of messages awaiting him. He had a full night of responses ahead. But it was his three brothers who he wanted to share the moment with most.
“I know they’re going to call me and we’re going to talk about it. And they’re going to make jokes and they’re going to make fun of me and some of the things that they saw,” Siakam says with a smile.
“I don’t know, it just hit me like right at the beginning. It was just, like, ‘wow, I’m here.’ They called my name for the starters and it was amazing. At that moment I just thought about my dad and everything that’s happened. It’s nothing I can explain. I don’t have words to explain how it was. It was just an awesome feeling.”